Recently, the case of Sackett v. EPA has been brought to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) jurisdiction over wetlands under the Clean Water Act, which could potentially affect future EPA authority.
In 2007, Michael and Chantell Sackett began development on a 2/3-acre private residential plot near, but not on the shore of, Priest Lake in Idaho. The Sacketts soon received a compliance order from the EPA ordering them to “immediately undertake activities to restore the Site….” They were fixed with the maximum daily fine of $37,500 per day.
The EPA’s compliance order stated that the Sackett’s plot was on “the waters of the United States, including the territorial seas” [CWA §502(7)], otherwise known as “navigable waters,” and therefore fell under the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act, requiring them to follow specific compliance requirements. The Sacketts believed this was their private property and therefore not subject to the rules of the CWA.
The Supreme Court Weighs In
The Sacketts sought a hearing with the EPA, arguing that the compliance order was “arbitrary and capricious.” However, the Agency denied hearing their claim. Several lower courts denied the Sacketts, but SCOTUS has now ordered that the couple can indeed have their day in court without awaiting EPA’s decision to sue them for failure to comply with the order.
In his delivery of the unanimous decision of the Court, Justice Antonin Scalia said that while the particulars of the case revolve around the jurisdictional scope of the term “navigable waters,” the Court’s only focus was on the dispute over EPA’s jurisdiction over the property being brought to court. Justice Scalia then referenced Chief Justice Roberts’ Rapanos v. United States concurring opinion that a lack of detailed guidance on “how to read Congress’ limits on the reach of the Clean Water Act” left those affected “to feel their way on a case-by-case basis.” According to Scalia, the Sacketts were in the position of “feeling their way” and deserve a chance to argue EPA’s right to regulate their property under the vague Clean Water Act definition of “navigable waters.”
Long-term Effects on EPA Authority
In effect, SCOTUS is putting the responsibility for the larger problem back onto the lawmakers. This may be where the long-term effect of Sackett v. EPA will be felt: if enough aggrieved property owners take EPA to court on the current “case-by-case basis” of determining which wetlands qualify as “jurisdictional wetlands,” EPA may petition Congress to settle the matter once and for all. Settling that matter by expounding on the Clean Water Act would give more specific guidelines on how the EPA can proceed in these cases.
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On May 3, 2012, Sackett v. EPA was remanded back to the Ninth Circuit Court. Read the entirety of the SCOTUS decision, including concurring opinions: here.
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